Steve Ballmer and Ray Ozzie at All things Digital – a poor performance

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie put on a poor performance when quizzed by Walt Mossberg at the All Things Digital conference, judging by Ina Fried’s live blog.

What was wrong with it? They allowed the conversation to be focused mainly on competing products: Apple iPad, Google Android, Google Apps, Google search. Since these products have exposed weaknesses in Microsoft’s own offerings, it was unlikely to work out well.

Mossberg asks about the transition to the cloud. “You guys are putting, for instance, a version of Office in the cloud.”

That was a gift. You would expect the two men to enthuse about how Microsoft’s dominance with desktop Office was now including the cloud as well, how the Office Web Apps enable new opportunities for collaboration, how Microsoft’s investment in XML for Office was now enabling the same document to live both on the desktop and in the cloud.

Nope. Ozzie waffles about people being more connected. Ballmer “disputes the notion that everything is moving to the cloud”.

So what about Steve Jobs prediction, of a transition from PCs to tablets and mobile devices? Ballmer says “not everyone can afford five devices,” lending support to the notion that Windows is for those who cannot afford something better.

Mossberg asks about tablets. Although Mossberg did not say so explicitly, tablets have been a tragi-comedy at Microsoft. Bill Gates evangelised the tablet concept years ago, pre-echoing Jobs’ claim that they would largely replace laptops. Microsoft tried again and again, with XP Tablet Edition, Vista on tablets, then “Origami”, or Ultra-mobile PC. Going back even further there were was the stylus-driven Palm-size PC (I have one in the loft). Tablet PC was not a complete failure, but remained an expensive niche. Origami sank without trace.

Ballmer replied that the “race is on”. Meaning? I guess, now that Apple has demonstrated how to make a successful Tablet, Microsoft will copy it? Or what?

I am not sure how you defend such a poor track record; but the starting point would be to explain that Microsoft has learned from past mistakes. In some ways it has; Windows 7 learns from mistakes in Vista, and Windows Phone 7 learns from mistakes in Windows Mobile.

None of that from Ballmer, who says vaguely that he expects Windows to run on a variety of devices. He makes matters worse later, by defending the stylus. “A lot of people are going to want a stylus,” he says. Some do, perhaps, but Apple has pretty much proved that most people prefer not to have one. I’d like to see effort go into designing away the need for a stylus, rather than implying that Microsoft is just going to repeat its part mistakes.

Someone in the audience asks, “Will we see Silverlight on Android or iPhone?” “My guess is  if it did, it would be blocked”, says Ballmer, ignoring the Android part of the question.

He’s ignoring the force of the question. Why bother developing for Silverlight, if it is locked into a Microsoft-only future, especially considering the company’s poor position in mobile currently? Ballmer could have mentioned the Nokia Symbian port. He could have said how Microsoft would get it on iPhone just as soon as Apple would allow it. He could have said that Microsoft is working with Google on an Android port – I don’t know if it is, but certainly it should be. He could have said that Silverlight plus Visual Studio plus Microsoft’s server applications is a great platform that extends beyond Windows-only clients.

Microsoft does have problems; but it also has strong assets. However it is doing an exceptionally poor job of communicating its strengths.

Update: There is a fuller transcript at Engadget, in which Ballmer and Ozzie come over better, though they still fail to impress. On mobile though, I like this comment:

We have new talent, we had to do some cleanup, we did it for Windows, and we’re doing it for mobile. And excellence in execution is also part of the equation.

I’d be interested in hearing from anyone present at the event.

Review: Web Design for Developers by Brian Hogan

The title of this book struck a chord with me. I’m comfortable with code but I don’t find design easy. Design is not magic though, and design skills can be learned. Maybe a typical developer will never be a great designer, but the ability to create web pages that look professional and attractive should be achievable.

Brian Hogan’s book Web Design for Developers (Pragmatic Bookshelf) looks like it might be the answer. Sub-titled “A programmer’s guide to design tools and techniques” it is aimed at developers who have “little or no design background”.

The book starts well, with a section called “The Basics of Design”. There are chapters on sketching out a layout, selecting or creating a colour scheme – with helpful insight into something that seems from outside like a black art – and a chapter on fonts and typography, explaining mysteries like the baseline grid and leading.

Hogan makes an interesting comment about fixed font sizes and accessibility. It used to be assumed that relative fonts are better for accessibility, as you can use the browser to increase the size. Hogan argues that zoom tools in the application or the operating system are better, since resizing fonts while images remain fixed makes a page look bad, so it is OK to use fixed font sizes.

The next part covers graphics, using Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop; Hogan says these are industry standards and you should use them if possible. There is a chapter on logo design, and three chapters creating a design mock-up for a web page, including a detailed step-by-step on designing an icon. Useful chapters, though I would have liked this section to be longer. There is too much on the mechanics of using Photoshop, and not enough on the design decisions themselves. How do you go about deciding what size each section of a page should be? How do you avoid making a page too busy and cluttered, or leaving too much space so that elements look detached from one another? What’s the secret to adding decorative elements without making the page look like a flashback to Geocities?

Unfortunately, rather than drill further into these topics, Hogan devotes the rest of the book to more mechanics, including working with HTML and CSS, how to achieve compatibility across different browsers, exporting images from Photoshop, search engine optimization, and performance issues. There’s plenty of good advice, though some is out-of-date: Hogan says that “at the time of writing, IE 6 has more active users than Firefox”. That is no longer the case.

Although these are important topics, to my mind they are not especially challenging for developers, who know how to look up a CSS reference or figure out how to deal with cross-browser compatibility. Working out how something should look is more challenging than the implementation.

Hogan lost the “for developers” focus and ended up writing a book that could better have been called “Web Design Essentials” or something similar.

Not a bad book then; but not what I was hoping for. I do think the general topic of “Design for developers” is under-served, especially as design has become far more important in the last few years, for numerous technical and strategic reasons, and would like to see further books on the subject.


Switching from Windows will not protect your data, says Trusteer CEO

I’ve just been sent some quotes from Mickey Boodaei, CEO of Trusteer, which caught my eye. It’s a response to the story that Google is directing employees not to use Windows because of security concerns.

Boodaei says that while switching from Windows may reduce the prevalence of common malware, it will not protect against “targeted attacks” – in other words, attempts to penetrate a specific network to steal data:

Enterprises that are considering shifting to an operating system like Mac or Linux should realize that although there are less malware programs available against these platforms, the shift will not solve the targeted attacks problem and may even make it worse. Mac and Linux are not more secure than Windows. They’re less targeted. There is a big difference. If you choose a less targeted platform then there is less of a chance of getting infected with standard viruses and Trojans that are not targeting you specifically. This could be an effective way of reducing infection rates for companies that suffer frequent infections.

In a targeted attack where criminals decide to target a specific enterprise because they’re interested in its data assets, they can very easily learn the type of platform used (for example Mac or Linux) and then build malware that attacks this platform and release it against the targeted enterprise.

The security community is years behind when it comes to security products for Mac and Linux. Therefore there is much less chance that any security product will be able to effectively detect and block this attack. By taking that action the enterprise increases its exposure to targeted attacks, not reducing it.

This sounds plausible, though there are a couple of counter-arguments. Windows has some flaws that are not present on Mac or Linux. It is still common for users to run with full local admin rights, even though user account control in Vista and Windows 7 mitigates this by requiring the user to approve certain actions. On Windows, it’s also more likely that you will have to give elevated rights to some application that wants to write to to a system location; there’s a specific “Run as administrator” option in the compatibility options.

Further, I’m always sceptical of statements from the Windows security industry. Are they simply trying to protect their business?

Still, I’m inclined to agree that switching OS is not a silver bullet that will fix security. Take a look at this recent report of malware-infected web sites offering tips for a current hit game, Read Dead Redemption.

The attack is essentially psychological. It plays on the common knowledge that Windows is vulnerable to malware, informing the user that malware has been detected and they must clean it up by running a utility. The utility, of course, is in fact the malware. The chances are good that the user will consent to giving it elevated permissions, once they have been taken in. In principle this kind of attack could work on other operating systems, except that the user might be more sceptical about the presence of malware because it is less common – a rather frail defence.

On Microsoft: is the sky falling? Remember Netware?

The top story on Guardian Technology right now is a rumour about Google getting rid of Windows. Apparently Google prefers its employees to use Mac or Linux.

Why is this interesting? I suspect because the world is now looking for evidence that Microsoft is failing. Microsoft failing in mobile is one thing, but to fail in its heartland of desktop operating systems is even more interesting. Presuming that Google itself has “gone Google”, it is also a reminder that once you free your organisation from Office and Outlook and Exchange, it also enables you to shift from Windows on the desktop. A side-effect of cloud is choice of local operating system.

Most businesses still run Windows as far as I can tell. Microsoft’s platform is also very broad. I had a discussion with the Windows Embedded team recently about point-of-service and digital signage; interesting stuff, and invisible to most of us.

So the sky is not falling yet. Nevertheless, if these is a public perception that Microsoft is failing to keep pace with new models of computing, that in itself is a serious problem.

I have not forgotten the Novell story. Back in the nineties, everyone knew that Windows NT was supplanting Novell’s Netware. At the same time, everyone knew that Netware was in most respects superior to Windows NT: the directory was more advanced, maintenance was easier, reliability was better. Here’s a blog from 1999 by Nick Holland explaining why:

The general industry perception is that Novell is a "has-been".  Microsoft Windows NT is where everyone is going.

I often get people asking me if they should switch to NT, and I ask them why they think they should.  The answer: "Well, isn’t everyone else?"  The reply: 1) No, they aren’t.  2) even if they were, how does that mandate that you should?

Holland goes on to note that Netware is still more widely used than Windows, and explain in detail why he prefers to install and support Netware. He was a Netware guy defending his choice; but reading his rant a decade later there’s not much to disagree with in his technical assessment.

So why did Windows NT win in the market, against an entrenched and superior alternative? There were several factors. Windows had already won on the client, and Microsoft ensured that it integrated best with its own directory and servers. Second, executives liked the idea of using the same platform on both client and server; support would not be able to blame the other guy. Third, once the perception that everyone was switching to Windows NT took hold, it became self-fulfilling. In the end, that perception may have been the most significant thing.

Today, perception is working against Microsoft. Windows mobile is a shrinking platform. Internet Explorer is losing market share. Microsoft has had the embarrassment of working for years on Tablet PC and Origami (ultra mobile PC), only to have Apple beat it easily with the iPad, its first product launch in that market.

Microsoft’s Brandon LeBlanc takes the Financial Times to task for saying:

Windows is known for being more vulnerable to attacks by hackers and more susceptible to computer viruses than other operating systems.

I don’t doubt the effort Microsoft has made over security for a number of years now, and LeBlanc makes some fair points. Nevertheless, I suspect the general reader will agree with what the FT says. They are more likely to have suffered from malware on a Windows machine, or to have friends that have suffered, than with a Mac or Linux (if they know anyone running Linux). That counts for more than any amount of spin about security enhancements in Windows.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs says, as summarised by Ina Fried:

When we were an agrarian nation, all cars were trucks because that’s what you needed on the farms. Cars became more popular as cities rose, and things like power steering and automatic transmission became popular. PCs are going to be like trucks. They are still going to be around…they are going to be one out of x people. This transformation is going to make some people uneasy…because the PC has taken us a long ways. It’s brilliant. We like to talk about the post-PC era, but when it really starts to happen, it’s uncomfortable.

Jobs is right, though he is focused on the device. He is not an internet guy, and that is a weakness, as John Battelle describes in this iPad post. You can debate whether the future tips more towards Apple or Google. Neither scenario is any comfort to Microsoft.

The sky is not falling yet. Microsoft’s platform is still an important one. Follow the trends though, and they all seem to point to a lesser role for the company in the coming decade than in the last one. Windows 7 surprised us with its quality. We need a few more surprises of equal or greater significance before that perception will change.

Reviewing the Logitech Squeezebox Touch

I found time over the long weekend to review the Logitech Squeezebox Touch. It’s a great gadget, which I like better the more I play with it, though it has flaws. I also suspect that Logitech’s marketing does not do it justice.

Most people look to Apple’s iTunes when they make the transition from CDs to computer-based music; but the Squeezebox system is more flexible. It is multi-room: once you have the server set up, you can have as many players as you want around the house, all playing different material. It also does cloud streaming, and if you combine a player like the Touch with a Napster subscription you can play almost anything, apart from a few awkward choices like The Beatles (who don’t do iTunes either). Internet radio comes for free and works very well.

The Touch is the first player to have a colour screen with touch control, though like many users I don’t see a lot of value in the touch aspect. I enjoy seeing album artwork though. Another neat feature is the Flickr app, which displays random or tagged photos from Flickr while your music plays.


The Touch has superb sound quality, being bit-perfect up to 24/96. The built-in DAC (digital to analogue converter) is very good, or you can use an external DAC. There’s also a headphone socket which you could attach to powered speakers to make a high quality desktop system.

The problem with the Touch is that it is not always easy to set up. There are almost too many choices. Run your Squeezebox server on a PC or Mac, or on a NAS (network attached storage) drive, or just use the hosted

A further option with the Touch is to attach a USB drive directly to the device. That seems ideal: low power consumption and simple setup. Unfortunately this is one of the most problematic areas. Users report problems both with USB-powered drives and with performance and reliability, especially with larger music libraries. It also takes ages to index a new library, and quite a long time to re-connect to an existing library if you remove and re-attach the drive.  For now, it’s best to rely on one of the other approaches.

One discovery I made when reviewing the Touch is SqueezePlay. Currently in beta, this is a cross-platform software player that has pretty much the same user interface as the Touch. You can download it here. SqueezePlay can operate as its own player, so you can listen on a PC, or as a controller for another player, whether a Touch or another in the Squeezebox range. The configuration seems buggy at the moment, but otherwise I’ve found it reliable.


Incidentally, the hardware Touch has the same capability. You can use it to control itself, or any other player. The wealthy might like to consider buying a couple of Touch devices, one to attach to a stereo system, and the other to sit on a table where you can reach it without getting up, and to act as a controller for the first one.

It’s a good example of how flexible the Squeezebox system is. I give it high marks for sound quality and flexibility, but it is spoilt by fiddly configuration and a few quirks. Logitech needs to crack “it just works”.

See the full review for more.